Peter Amster has a big black binder filled with everything he needs to know about “Fallen Angels,” the three-act comedy by Noël Coward that outraged critics when it opened on Broadway 87 years ago.
In the binder is a list of words that were used to describe the show, all of them different ways to express discontent.
Amster decided to include the list in his production notes. It reminds him that he’s handling racy material, even if it’s tame by today’s standards.
Opening his binder, he rattles off the insults with the kind of pride and irony that only a seasoned director of high British satire can display.
“Vicious, vile, disgusting, degenerate, shocking, nauseating, obscene … ”
Amster closes the binder and grins. Chances are when the show opens next week at the Asolo Repertory Theatre, few people will leave muttering “degenerate” under their breath.
“From a socially conservative point of view, it was probably shocking for 1925,” Amster says. “It deals with sexuality with a certain penetrating understanding.”
Before you wonder if Amster’s use of the word “penetrating” is a Freudian slip, you should know that the director is a master of nuance and innuendo, having already directed many of Coward’s plays, including “Hay Fever,” “Private Lives” and “Present Laughter.”
If you didn’t know better, you’d think he was British.
“Noël Coward is Peter Amster’s sweet spot,” says Asolo Rep Artistic Director Michael Donald Edwards. “He’s an incredibly stylish and humane director. He’s got a tremendous sense of language, and he’s brilliant with comedy.”
It’s no surprise, then, that when the rights to “Fallen Angels” were finally released after sitting for decades in relative obscurity, Amster’s name was at the top of many artistic directors’ lists.
Amster received three offers to direct the play from companies in Indiana, Ohio and California.
He chose to direct it at the Asolo Rep, where he’s now in his fourth season and where his commute to work is less than 10 minutes. (He and longtime partner, Tony Award-winning director Frank Galati, sold their place in Miami last year and moved into a condo in downtown Sarasota.)
“The living is easy here,” Amster says. “Miami was fine, but I had to leave town in order to work. It’s exciting here. Michael (Edwards) says there are more people per capita working in the arts in Sarasota than in any other city in the country, except for New York. The synergy of that is wonderful. It’s gratifying to know what we do matters to so many people.”
Given its timeless subject matter, “Fallen Angels,” though it may be a lesser-known Coward play, should matter to Sarasota audiences.
According to Edwards, the Asolo Rep is one of only a handful of theaters to perform the play since its 1956 Broadway revival.
Regarded as the 1920s version of “Sex and the City,” “Fallen Angels” revolves around two married women, best friends who in one drunken night relive the affairs they had with the same Frenchman before they got married.
“They each get a postcard from a man named Maurice,” Amster says. “And all these feelings emerge; things you’d imagine you’d feel if someone you had a fling with years ago suddenly reappeared in your life.”
He says the subject matter is something everyone can relate to, “whether they’re willing to admit it or not.”
Even Amster, who has been in a committed relationship with Galati for 41 years, isn’t exempt from dredging up emotional baggage.
“I had a past,” he says mischievously. “Of course, with Facebook it makes it easier to see what happened to your past. Most of the time I’m like, ‘Why do they look so old?’ ‘What happened to their hair?’”
A 62-year-old New York native, Amster got his start performing in musicals in Chicago, where he got his Ph.D. in performance studies at Northwestern University.
A dancer, he was athletic, built for lifting and jumping in all the usual big musical productions — “1776,” “Damn Yankees,” “Show Boat” and “Oklahoma,” to name a few — until a poorly landed grand jeté sidelined his career as a performer.
It proved a fortuitous accident.
Amster was a natural at directing. Many of his productions in Chicago were nominated for theater awards, including “Once on this Island,” “The World Goes Round, “The Rothschilds” and “Pride and Prejudice.”
He even worked as a choreographer on Galati’s Broadway-bound “Grapes of Wrath.”
An intuitive director, he often uses feedback from the actors to drive a scene, an approach that makes his characters pop rather than blend into the milieu, which is especially important when audiences are familiar with the material.
“I like to find these little crannies in polished characters,” Amster says of direction. “Sometimes it means finding things that aren’t in the script, exposing the innermost recesses of these characters until you find the beating heart under the gleaming surface.”
In other words, the director isn’t afraid to put his mark on a play, even though he stepped out of the spotlight years ago.
“People say I’m a tasteful director,” he says, “which raises my hackles a little bit. I don’t think my shows are successful because I’m tasteful. They’re successful because they’re true.”
PLAYING FOR KEEPS
Peter Amster weighs in on his three favorite playwrights.
“Using the smallest gestures of everyday life, she manages to create a whole world of feeling. Her (stories) sometimes sound hopelessly domestic, but within that domestic setting there are such riches.”
“‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ was a silly, topsy-turvy play. (Wilde) talked about important things, but he did it with a gloss of silliness. His main comic weapon was inversion. Just when you thought you knew where an idea was going, he would reverse it.”
“One needs to be a mental acrobat to follow his work. ‘Arcadia’ is absolutely brilliant and dazzling in terms of intellectual language.”
IF YOU GO
“Fallen Angels” runs March 9 to May 13, at the Asolo Repertory Theatre. For tickets, call 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org.